In the first action taken against an individual grower in the 2-week-old California watermelon poisoning investigation, state agriculture officials Tuesday said they have quarantined two aldicarb-contaminated melon fields owned by a prominent San Joaquin Valley grower and his son.
The state Department of Food and Agriculture order, issued Monday night, bans the harvesting of 110 acres of melons in the farming community of Mettler, 25 miles south of Bakersfield.
State inspectors, who have been sampling melons and soil from Kern County’s 80 watermelon growers since the first of scores of watermelon-related illnesses were reported July 4, said the fields of Jimmie Icardo and his son, Gary, contained “positive residues” of aldicarb, the chemical linked to the epidemic.
Aldicarb is the active ingredient in Temik, a popular Union Carbide Corp. pesticide that is used to kill worms and mites in numerous crops, including cotton and potatoes. However, aldicarb is not registered for use on watermelons, which are more likely than some crops to accumulate significant residues.
Agriculture officials, saying their investigation is continuing, declined to comment on what level of the pesticide was found in the Icardos’ fields or whether they suspect the pesticide was applied intentionally.
The director of the state Department of Food and Agriculture, Clare Berryhill, last week said he had “strong suspicions” that watermelon growers willfully ignored restrictions on Temik.
Jan Wessell, a spokeswoman for the department, said the imposition of quarantine orders on other farms is “a real possibility.”
Jimmie Icardo, who moved to the San Joaquin Valley in the late 1940s after farming in the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys, farms about 800 acres of fruit and vegetables, according to Kern County records.
Icardo has served as chairman of the board of several Kern County banks and agricultural organizations. In 1983, he was one of 12 finalists in a Kern County magazine’s “Person of the Year” contest in which 48,000 people voted.
Temik can be purchased only with the approval of a county agricultural commission. Records filed in Kern County show that Jimmie and Gary Icardo last January filed an annual “restricted materials permit” requesting permission to apply Temik to 100 acres of cotton.
Neither Icardo returned telephone messages left at their businesses Tuesday.
Their fields were among four groups of fields named by the state immediately after the outbreak as having been found to contain unspecified levels of aldicarb.
Numerous farmers have insisted that the tests on which those results were based were flawed. On Tuesday state officials admitted that the initial tests were unverified and in some cases highly inaccurate, and said the names of the four farms should not have been released.
Each of the three other farms whose names were released--Sam Andrews and Sons, Don Icardo and Reynold Mettler--has had several or all of its fields cleared for harvesting during the last several days.
Wessell said state and federal investigators have yet to conclude their investigation of how the aldicarb got into the Icardos’ watermelon fields. State officials have said their findings will be passed on to the state attorney general or county district attorneys for possible prosecution. Farmers may be subject to civil penalties or misdemeanor criminal charges carrying as much as six months in jail or a $1,000 fine for each count.
California’s melons were recalled in 10 states nationwide and parts of Canada after consumers of the fruit began to fall ill. No one has died in the outbreak, but health officers estimate that as many as 280 people were stricken by aldicarb poisoning after eating California watermelons.
The state halted melon harvesting while it sampled and tested all fields. Last Wednesday, individual growers began receiving permission to resume harvesting, with state stamps applied to each “cleared” melon. In Kern County, the center of the state’s investigation, about three-quarters of the county’s 80 growers have resumed harvesting. But they have found that supermarkets are willing to pay considerably less for watermelons than before the outbreak.
In a related development, Gov. George Deukmejian on Tuesday endorsed stiffer penalties for the illegal use of pesticides such as those suspected of contaminating the melons. But the governor said it would be difficult for the state to reimburse innocent growers who were hurt financially by the watermelon crisis, a remedy suggested by some legislators from rural districts.
“We would certainly be willing to consider that,” Deukmejian said at a news conference of state aid to melon growers. “But it may not be an easy thing to accomplish.”
Berryhill, state food and agriculture director, amplifying later on the governor’s position, said that any guilty growers--rather than taxpayers--"should be the ones to share the primary responsibility for the losses that were incurred.”
Berryhill appeared at a press conference with a dozen state Assembly members from rural districts who unveiled a series of bills stemming from the watermelon scare.
Berryhill, with Deukmejian’s support, endorsed legislation by Assemblyman Wally Herger (R-Rio Oso) that would make illegal pesticide use a felony punishable by a $10,000 fine and up to three years in state prison. Such an offense is a misdemeanor under current law.
The legislative package also included a bill to require that watermelons be shipped in crates or otherwise identified so the fruit could be more easily traced to the field where it was grown. Another bill would provide funds to allow the Department of Food and Agriculture to monitor pesticide residues on produce destined for processing.